A new study from the Institute for Justice reveals that policing for profit, the use of forfeiture programs, has “no meaningful effect on crime fighting” but is “strongly linked to worsening economic conditions.”
“These results suggest law enforcement agencies pursue forfeiture less to fight crime than to raise revenue,” IJ said.
The report, called “Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue?” finds the nation’s biggest forfeiture program doesn’t help police fight crime, but they use it to boost revenue, “in other words, to police for profit.”
It looked at local crime, drug use and economic data from a variety of federal sources and compared the results to data from the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program, which provides that state and local law enforcement cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Administration and other DOJ agencies – and get up to 80 percent of proceeds of forfeitures.
The IJ said its conclusions call “into question whether distributing billions of dollars in forfeiture proceeds improves police effectiveness. The new evidence undercuts claims by prominent forfeiture supporters, such as former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who called forfeiture an ‘important tool that can be used to combat crime, particularly drug abuse.'”
The findings were that “More forfeiture proceeds do not translate into more crimes solved, despite claims forfeiture gives law enforcement more resources to fight crime.”
And, “More forfeiture proceeds also do not mean less drug use, even though forfeiture supposedly rids the streets of drugs by crippling drug dealers and cartels financially.”
And “When local economies suffer, forfeiture activity increases, suggesting police make greater use of forfeiture when local budgets are tight. A 1 percentage point increase in local unemployment – a standard proxy for fiscal stress – is associated with a statistically significant 9 percentage point increase in seizures of property for forfeiture.”
Brian Kelly, associated economics professor at Seattle University and study author, explained, “These results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that forfeiture’s value in crime fighting is exaggerated and that police do use forfeiture to raise revenue.
“Given this evidence and the serious civil liberties concerns raised by forfeiture, forfeiture proponents should bear the burden of proof when opposing reforms that would keep police focused on fighting crime, not raising revenue.”
Between 2001 and 2017, citizens lost almost $40 billion to government forfeiture programs.
IJ explains that to lose property, such as cars, cash and homes, to a government agency, one doesn’t necessarily have to be convicted – or even charged – with a crime.
IJ said the bottom line is that increased forfeiture funds had “no meaningful effect on crime fighting.”
One South Carolina deputy attached to a program called Operation Rolling Thunder, which patrols highways looking for reasons to stop people, warned in the study, “Nearly everyone does something illegal if you follow them long enough.”
“Officially, the program’s mission is to catch ‘bad guys’ and intercept drugs, drug money or other contraband they may be carrying on the interstates. Yet a traffic stop does not have to end in an arrest – or even a ticket – for police to unburden drivers and passengers of their cash or other property. All police need to seize property is probable cause to believe it is related to a crime,” the study said.
They then can keep the money and use it as they like.
And that, the study said, is just one of many such programs.
The IJ said its study results “cast doubt on proponents’ claims that forfeiture is an important crime-fighting tool while supporting critics’ charges that police pursue forfeiture for revenue.”
“This study shows policymakers can undertake serious and much-needed forfeiture reforms without jeopardizing police effectiveness,” explained Lee McGrath, IJ’s senior legislative counsel. “Congress should abolish equitable sharing, and in the meantime, states should opt out of the program. And lawmakers should eliminate the financial incentives in both state and federal forfeiture laws that encourage the pursuit of revenue over the pursuit of justice.”
The IJ has fought unreasonable forfeitures since 2010, and since then, 32 states have enacted some form of reforms.
“Seven states and the district have largely opted out of equitable sharing, limiting law enforcement’s ability to receive funding through the program and making it harder for law enforcement to circumvent state civil forfeiture laws,” the organization said.
Just this year, it obtained a landmark victory in Timbs v. Indiana, where the U.S. Supreme Court said state civil forfeiture cases are bound by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines.”